Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman announced on Monday that his party won’t join the government, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to forge a stable coalition in shambles.
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Netanyahu had sought a coalition including 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. But with Lieberman out, and the deadline for forming a government on Thursday, he has little choice but to try to form a narrow government of only 61 seats.
With Yisrael Beiteinu out, Likud officials worried that Habayit Hayehudi and Shas would be able to “extort” Likud in the coalition talks. Both are now essential to the coalition, and neither had yet signed an agreement with Likud when Lieberman made his announcement, though Shas did so later yesterday.
“We have no real alternatives,” a Likud official explained. “There are no other right-wing parties to negotiate with. The chance of bringing Zionist Union into the coalition based on the existing fundamentals are slight.”
The bare-majority coalition now shaping up will be untenable, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party said.
“A coalition of 61 MKs is an impossible coalition. All it takes is for Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich ... to flex a muscle and the government will fall,” the Likud source said, referring to two Knesset members from Habayit Hayehudi.
Officials from both Likud and Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union now expect Netanyahu to try to bring the latter into the coalition, perhaps in a few months. But Zionist Union officials yesterday rejected the idea.
Likud officials admit they took Yisrael Beiteinu for granted.
“Our mission was to first close with Shas and Habayit Hayehudi, to stabilize a coalition of 61, and only then to close with Lieberman,” one official said. “The presumption was that the chance of Lieberman preferring the opposition was low, and that he would join the coalition at almost any price in exchange for the prestigious foreign affairs portfolio.”
Lieberman is currently foreign minister, and had been promised he could keep that job in the next government. Yesterday, he announced his resignation from the post.
At a press conference called yesterday to announce his decision, Lieberman said the government now being formed “is the embodiment of opportunism.”
“This coalition does not reflect the positions of the Zionist public, and it is not to our taste, to say the least,” Lieberman said.
“Our dilemma was principles, not seats,” he continued. “We had no problem with the ministerial positions, and we did indeed receive the Foreign Ministry in full during negotiations, along with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.”
But Netanyahu made it clear the new government would not advance several issues Yisrael Beiteinu cared about, Lieberman said. For instance, he charged, the controversial bill to define Israel as a Jewish state has disappeared from the agenda, and the emerging government has “no intention of overthrowing the Hamas regime.”
He also objected vehemently to Likud’s agreement with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which reversed several reforms enacted by the previous government.
Lieberman told Haaretz yesterday that he does not intend to retire from politics.
“I’m going to remain a Knesset member and fight from within the opposition – and I know how to fight,” he said. “I’ve heard talk that I intend to retire and leave, but I’m staying in the Knesset. I’ll work as an ordinary MK and lead Yisrael Beiteinu during the next election.”
One Likud official said he believed Lieberman’s decision to remain in opposition was still reversible if the agreement reached with UTJ could be moderated and Lieberman’s party were given the chance to push through certain key bills.
Another possibility is to try to lure the hawkish members of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, though this is considered unlikely.
After signing his coalition agreement with Likud last night, Shas chairman Arye Dery urged Zionist Union to join a unity government. Meanwhile, Likud urged Habayit Hayehudi to quickly accept the terms on offer.
Shas will receive three ministries – economy, religious affairs, and Negev and Galilee development – and two deputy minister positions. Also, a Shas official will be appointed as a minister or deputy minister in the Finance Ministry, where he will be responsible for the Planning Authority, which had previously been run by the Interior Ministry but was transferred to the Finance Ministry after incoming Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon demanded it.